Stretching My Gambes

Doves, flowers and soccer: UK students tour the Mideast

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Published in the Daily Star (Beirut) on Monday 20th October

LONDON: Sporting events have historically served as a means to improve, or temporarily forget, otherwise tense relationships – exemplified most famously by the British and German soccer match during the 1914 Christmas armistice. Improvements in American-Chinese relations during the 1970s were marked by “ping pong diplomacy;” while in 1997 Iranian President Mohammad Khatami used wrestling for a similar means of interaction with America.

The soccer team of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) had similar, but perhaps less grandiose, intentions during their September tour of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. The trip intended to use soccer as a medium to establish mutual cultural understanding and friendships between communities which often meet only at a diplomatic level.

However, tensions in the Kurdish region of Turkey fuelled debates about British attitudes toward Kurds and their treatment at the hands of the Turkish authorities. Some of the local community took exception to the students’ focus on soccer, suggesting that their time would have been invested better through dialogue and interaction with local communities.

The Turkish state also appeared to take an interest in the students’ activities. The team were allegedly followed by the security services and while in Diyarbakir there were claims from some students that their belongings had been searched when left unattended.

Syria provided a more hospitable atmosphere, thanks to the British Council and the National Union of Syrian Students who oversaw this leg of the trip.

Questioned regarding the source of the funding, the Union maintained that the money was not from Syrian taxpayers; rather it came from the Baath Party. The official line was: “you are students – all students in Syria are treated well.”

In this regard the outstanding moment of the trip for captain Jasper Kain was the post-match exchange of flowers and release of doves by a Kurdish team in Diyarbakir. Kain described the behavior as a “million miles away from Britain” and illustrated his pleasure from sharing iftar with around 500 of the local community.

As in Turkey, positive interactions with local communities triumphed over political difficulties. Following a festively supported match against Iraqi refugees, the teams lifted a banner painted by Iraqi children reading “every child has a wish.” The players then took small cards hanging from a tree, which expressed each child’s dreams. There are arrangements for a similar tree to be planted in London.

Ladideh Iskandarain, the regional head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, stated her pride that a group of young British people had decided to come and play soccer: “This is a big moment, we need more young people like you guys who are willing to reach beyond.”

There were also successes on the pitch. Syria provided the trip’s best quality of soccer despite support being substantially below the promised five thousand. Damascus University managed to have Syrian internationals as substitutes, or “ringers,” which lead to a rather one-sided 5-2 victory. Against Aleppo SOAS managed to hold on to win 4-3 despite the combined efforts of Syrian “amateur dramatics” and some fairly biased refereeing.

A fixture against a Damascene youth side, keen to impress the visiting side, resembled a clash between David and Goliath over a potato field. Despite taking the lead against a team literally twice their size, the locals eventually lost 2-1.

Reflecting on the success of the trip, British Ambassador to Syria Simon Collis praised it as “a great way to get through the tourist barrier,” but encouraged longer-term exchange programs to strengthen relationships further.

The director of the British Council in Syria Elizabeth White shared Collis’ views and aired her support for similar interactions in the future, suggesting that SOAS had set a wonderful precedent.

Perhaps the most significant moments for the students were the firsthand experiences of the Arab-Israeli conflict in al-Quneitra and Tyre. As a number of the team had studied the Arab-Israeli conflict, the trip provided their first opportunity to observe the protracted effects of the Israeli conflict and the remaining tensions.

In Tyre, students were greeted warmly by the extended family of a team member. The team were pleasantly surprised by the vitality and vibrancy of daily life despite the visible scars of the 2006 conflict.

In Golan the team visited the desolate town of Al-Quneitra which serves as a memorial to those killed and displaced by the 1967 Israeli incursion and continued occupation.

Standing on the roof of the bullet-riddled hospital of Al-Quneitra and looking across to the Israeli army outposts proved too much for some.

The trip left a lasting impression on the team, not merely as an adventure, but because it created a number of friendships and plans for return exchanges and trips with different communities.

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Written by Henry Smith

17/11/2009 at 09:47

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